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  • Writer's pictureClaire Clarkin, LMHC

Adult Children of Alcoholics: Overcoming Your Parents’ Addiction




As addiction rates increase across the US, a heartbreaking reality becomes evident- addiction is a family disease.


It is estimated that 28.6 million adults in the United States grew up with one or both parents with Alcohol Use Disorder. These Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) face unique challenges as a result of their parents’ addiction such as low self-esteem, addiction, mental health disorders, and chronic familial dysfunction.


It is likely that ACOAs faced a near constant state of dysfunction in their childhood as a result of parental addiction. They may have faced difficult, and possibly traumatic, experiences that lead to upheaval, chaos, conflict, instability as well as increased rates of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.


ACOAs often find that their experiences in childhood may impact them long into their adult years. How does this dysfunction present itself? It can be in the way they react to stressors, the way they form relationships and even the way they use drugs or alcohol themselves.


The Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families World Service Organization identified a list of common traits that may describe an ACOA. While no list can encompass the experiences of all ACOAs, the list below elaborates on the ones I have found to be most prevalent in my ACOA clients and those that are most transformative in creating change when identified.


ACOAs tend to marry them or become them.


Children of alcoholics are at twice the risk of developing an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) for a variety of genetic, psychological, social and environmental factors. The strong hereditary nature of AUDs is well researched and can explain part of the connection between parent-child addictions. However it is often the psychological, social and environmental factors that reinforce ACOAs likelihood of continuing this dysfunction into their adulthood.


For example, children of alcoholics are more likely to experiment with substances at a younger age and use more of the substance compared to their non-ACOA counterparts indicating that the normalization of substance abuse in their childhood reinforces addictive behaviors. This normalization of substance abuse may also explain why ACOAs find partners who are addicted as well.


ACOAs develop poor boundaries to avoid abandonment and seek to meet unfulfilled emotional needs


Boundaries are the rules we establish to teach others about the way in which we will or will not tolerate being treated. For someone who grew up with emotionally absent parents due to addiction, it may be difficult to maintain boundaries, especially with people who treat you poorly, because emotional fulfillment was infrequent and irregular as a child. So, as an adult, you become flexible in your rules in order to allow yourself to be validated whenever possible, despite whatever negative consequences come with the relationship.


ACOAS can pick up the behaviors, without picking up the drink


Workaholic, shopaholic, rageaholic - the list goes on. Addictive behaviors can manifest in many ways. For those ACOAs who may never develop substance addiction themselves, they may struggle to moderate behaviors in other aspects of their life.


As mentioned, addiction impacts children through a complex variety of genetics, social, psychological and environmental factors. In short, addictive behaviors can be learned and develop into dysfunction without ever needing a substance as a catalyst.


Being an ACOA is not a “life sentence”


If the above traits resonated with you, it is time to begin living a life unencumbered by a loved one’s addiction. Unlearning old behaviors and creating new, healthier ones is a challenging road. You do not have to walk it alone. Many ACOAs seek support of those with similar experiences through a 12-step fellowship program such as Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families, which holds meetings daily.


Counseling can also be a powerful tool to help you begin to establish freedom from your ACOA traits. Whether you seek guidance in how to choose healthier relationships, set firmer boundaries, or end compulsive behaviors of your own, a knowledgeable therapist can help you create a future free from addiction.

https://www.bayviewtherapy.com/claire-clarkin

If you’re ready to take the next step in healing, I invite you to contact me for a complimentary consultation at so we can discuss how I can help.


I provide counseling for adults in our beautiful east Fort Lauderdale office as well as online therapy via our secure telehealth platform.


For more information about my approach or my services, click here.


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